Fighting back to win the day - if only for a few months
LEINSTER HOUSE has seen bigger protests, but rarely a more civilised one. No ear-splitting streams of rhetoric, no symbolic storming of the gates. It was all the more effective for that.
As more wheelchairs arrived and overwhelmed the pavement, the few visible gardaí didn’t argue; they just created more pedestrian space on the road, reducing Kildare Street traffic to a single lane. The only noise was the rhythmic blasts from passing cars, as drivers sounded their horns in a continuous chorus of solidarity.
That must have been scary enough for those lurking inside the corridors of power assessing the political damage.
In the end, there were about 70 obviously disabled protesters, obvious only because they were in wheelchairs. Closer scrutiny of
the crowd standing around them revealed crutches, white sticks, and a guide dog.
“God alone knows the effort it took to get themselves here,” murmured the mother of a young man in a wheelchair. He had
got “lost” for a while between Merrion Street and Kildare Street, she said, her eyes already glazing over from anxiety and exhaustion.
“To organise this number of wheelchair users is massive,”
said Alan Dunne, deputy chief executive of the Disability Federation of Ireland. “What you see here are the people who actually are using the services rather than their families . . .”
Dr Margaret Kennedy, who, in bold pink ensemble and cheery flowered hat, appeared in these pages yesterday in the company
of her sister, Ann, had a small card pinned to her top: “Twin too unwell to be here today.”
But Kennedy, who can barely walk due to multiple illnesses and has a personal assistant for three hours a week, had soldiered on alone, travelling by train from Greystones, then shoving and leaning on her old manually powered wheelchair from Pearse Station up to Merrion Street and around to Kildare Street, before gratefully sinking into it, “nearly dead”.
The general mood was less of anger, than of bafflement – at the poor economics of the proposals plus the byzantine communications system of the HSE. But, crucially, there was a quiet confidence that their cause would endure.
Tired, hot, uncomfortable, with some in serious pain, they were nonetheless prepared for anything the day would bring, including another cold night on the streets.
Michelle Gaynor, who lives alone with the aid of three personal assistants, felt she had no choice until she had written confirmation of a reversal of the cuts. “Without my assistants, I would end up in residential care. They are literally my arms and legs. They drive my car and cook my meals. Without them, I’m a prisoner. Without them I can do nothing . . .” she said.
It’s hardly surprising. Many have been fighting since childhood just for the right to be visible. Martin Naughton’s first battle as a teenager in St Mary’s hospital, Baldoyle, was to be allowed to have a haircut outside the institution. This is probably why, 40 years on, he and his comrades – John Roche, Leigh Gath and Donal Toolan – communicate with a quiet patience and unfailing politeness.